Animal Collective Faces the Strange

A long time ago — the early 2000s — Animal Collective was pegged as one of a handful of new bands making music both beautiful and weird. But what's "weird," anyway? What does it mean to call a record — like Animal Collective's 2000 debut, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, or its 2004 masterpiece, Here Comes the Indian — weird? Not all that much, usually. Especially during those freak folk days of yore. Then as now, "weird" is often deployed as a cop-out, a catch-all we heave up to classify the unclassifiable. German pornography is weird; quiet office temps are weird, too. Though occasionally, "weird" flexes the power to be something more. When it does, new values eat up old ones, and culture changes its shape some: This is Animal Collective's story, in so many words.

There is already something rarefied about every inch of the group, from its eyesore packaging to its ritualistic shows to its copious side-projects. This phenomenon has only happened a handful of times in American independent music on the scale of popularity the band now enjoys. The question-without-an-answer is why.

"Just the way the four of us related to each other musically, from the beginning, it was like a club we had joined," Josh Dibb (aka Deakin) tells SF Weekly by telephone. "Our favorite thing to do was get together and create these unusual spaces. And those years — '96 through the early 2000s — I think we forged a special bond between us."

More forcibly than any other group from its generation, Animal Collective — long on intuition and short on self-reflexive cool — has reversed the irony-gag reflex rock 'n' roll had stumbled into by the 1990s. Back then, the band members were still teenagers in Baltimore, discovering the infinite jests in the back catalogs of such independent labels as Matador and Drag City. Then they dug deeper.

"When we were 16 or 17, there was a magazine published out of San Francisco called Bananafish," Brian Weitz (aka Geologist) says. "And it really turned us onto a lot of West Coast noise bands. We started hearing similarities in what those bands were doing and what we were doing. There was a lot of discovery going on then."

Their listeners have been right there with them, witnessing a weary century finally flicker out. Though detractors have often called it a jam band — a sort of Phish for an Adrian Tomine afterworld — Animal Collective is one of the few contemporary groups it's difficult to imagine operating within the cultural and technological confines of the 20th century. Its approach seems too holistic and sprawling, elaborating an elusive though corporeal vision, merging the spooky and the bucolic, that pulls its live shows and video art together with its music. It is in many ways the perfect group for a generation nursing an ever-present information hangover. Yet its fans still manage to conjure visions that carry their imaginations off the digital grid. Like the audience member who, in 2004, approached Dibb after a set the band played at Oakland's LoBot Gallery.

"The show itself was pretty chaotic," Dibb recalls. "But I remember this dude walking up to me after the show. I don't think he was high or anything. But he stopped me and said, 'That was an amazing show — I thought I was watching angels.'"

There is a strange cohesion, built on what both Weitz and Dibb casually refer to as the band's "light" and "dark" tendencies, that runs through Animal Collective's work. From Spirit They've Gone to 2005's Feels to the album that cemented its position as perhaps the most important band in America, 2007's Strawberry Jam, to this month's Centipede Hz, the band's discography is now nine albums deep. Within its compositions, you'll be hard-pressed to find a single bar that isn't driven by a constant tension between ugliness and prettiness.

On Centipede Hz, though, the dark seems to have the upper hand. After 2009's relatively shiny and open Merriweather Post Pavilion, the group's latest displays more shadow than shimmer. Some critics have called it a return to the murkier textures of earlier records. But repeated listens reveal a band, once again, in transition — the instant accessibility of Merriweather proving a chance aberration in their catalog, like an Eadweard Muybridge photograph catching a running horse with four hooves to the ground. One can only speculate where Animal Collective is headed from here. But conscientious artists tend to work in cycles of dawn-to-decadence. Centipede, with its garage rock and Peruvian accents — its continuous charge of electricity from other orbs — feels like a heavy night, a sensory fog, that soon will lift.

So, again, Animal Collective's weird has reached beyond the quirky. As in the Old English "wyrd," which — a little before the advent of music journalism — meant fate or destiny, and evoked the pagan sense of our pull toward mystery (in contrast to sturdy Christian certitude). Each day is a new day, essentially, come rain, come toadstorm. Like the fortunes of four men, now in their mid-30s — Dibb, Weitz, Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear), and David Portner (aka Avey Tare). Wyrd is feeling at home within life's uncertainties, of trudging forward through the light and dark. It's in this way that Animal Collective is weird. And it's in this way that weird has always been the foundation of beauty.

 
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